Lately I’ve been remembering two people who were attached to Chatswood South Uniting Church. Two unrelated individuals, two quite different life stories both of whom ended up separated from their families and effectively alone in the world. Hence, perhaps, their attachment to the church.
I use the word ‘attached’ because ‘connected’, ‘included’, ‘befriended’ and other similar words aren’t quite right. I acknowledge that were both quite challenging – one could be an absolute pest and the other was so trapped in his own grief and sadness that it was hard to get words out of him.
There’s more to their stories, of course, I mention them because they were so alone in the world when they died.
As we look back on the last two years of pandemic disruption and restriction and remember what it felt like to be separated from family and community, I’ve been very conscious of the very many people in residential aged care settings who have no family or no family contact.
For such people, the community of their particular setting – made up of staff and other residents – is life-giving and life-saving. The pandemic has both revealed and intensified the systemic problems in the way aged care is delivered in this country. It bothers me (a lot) that there is so little sign of any intention to seriously address these issues emanating from those who have responsibility.
We’ve all learned over the last two years how vulnerable we are when our ability to connect and care for each other is constrained or cut off. Human beings are social animals – connection and care for each other are fundamental to our wellbeing, not an optional nice-to-have. We appear to notice this most powerfully whenever community comes together in response to a threat or disaster as we experienced in the 2019 bushfire disaster and, right now, in the response to devastating floods in northern NSW. At such times, our dependance on the generosity and compassion of others is recognised, appreciated and celebrated for the enormous gift – blessing – that it is.
It always strikes me that the gift of community should be remarked upon as something unusual, strange, surprising. I surmise that this reaction reflects the highly individualized, self-absorbed, self-obsessed culture in which we now live. In a book titled The Life of I: The New Culture of Narcissism, Alice Manne comments: ”Popular culture, in its relentless embrace of the addictions of consumerism, seduces ordinary people…”.
Individualism, materialism, consumerism are dominant, inescapable threads in our cultural landscape and we’re all, consciously or unconsciously, tangled in them. So tangled perhaps that it’s become increasingly difficult to see or sense what might have been lost along the way and it now takes increasingly powerful wake up calls to remind us that we belong to each other, we need each other and to remind us of the blessing and gift of being connected in community.
I have a – possibly idealistic – expectation that the church should ‘get’ this. After all, we live in a story that says it’s not about ‘you’, it’s actually more about ‘us’. We have been gathered into community to live differently together, to be ‘a fellowship of reconciliation through which Christ may work and bear witness to himself’ (Basis Of Union paragraph.3)
One of the most profound ways that the church witnesses to Jesus Christ is when it reaches beyond its buildings to offer hospitality and genuine community as a reminder that we are not alone, we are all in this together; when it provides a caring sanctuary for the disconnected of this world, so they don’t die alone and disconnected from the human family. And, yes, it’s sometimes uncomfortable, painful, and costly.
We are in the season of Lent, when we usually talk of giving something up. Coffee, chocolate, wine are frequently favourite sacrifices.
As we ‘give up’ this Lent, could we also reflect on what we might ‘give to’ forming and fostering a connected, loving community as a reminder for our disconnected, forgetful world?